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As a teenager in the early ’70s, musician Toby Foyeh wanted to break away from his family’s tradition. His three older brothers all left Nigeria to attend Howard University; Foyeh decided to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. He lasted a semester and a half, right until the snow started to pile up.
“It was too cold in Boston, so I decided to transfer to Howard,” says Foyeh, who now performs around the U.S. and internationally with his band, Orchestra Africa.
Once at Howard, Foyeh didn’t follow in the footsteps of his brothers—a doctor, a professor, and an engineer—opting, instead, to study music and earn a degree in film directing.
“I spent so many years trying to convince them that music was as honorable as any other profession,” says Foyeh, whose lawyer father was minister of justice for the Western Province during the civilian government in Nigeria in the ’60s. “They didn’t want me to go into music, but music became a calling for me.”
Though Foyeh had to break from family tradition to become a musician, the music he plays celebrates the traditions of his home country and other African nations. His 10-piece band features African percussion instruments such as the gangan, or talking drum, as well as female backup singer-dancers in traditional dress.
“This is the second coming of African music to America,” says Foyeh. “The first is how the blues and jazz came to America. Now we have the influence of more modern music [from] Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa.”
Foyeh’s musical style, known as “afrijam,” fuses African melodies and rhythms with Western harmonies and technology. On his most recent CD, Jalolo (Kameleon Records), Foyeh sings and plays guitar and flute. Often, as in the title track, the lyrics come from a traditional Yoruba song, but Foyeh’s musical arrangement and melodies lean more toward jazz and funk.
“We learned African music by ear. We learned Western music from college and listening to records,” Foyeh explains. “To be able to merge the two styles and make sense out of it is like fitting pieces of a big puzzle together.” —Holly Bass